Vox Arcana - Soft FocusVox Arcana - Soft Focus
Getatchew Mekuria & The Ex & Friends
With a story worthy of a Buena Vista Social Club-type documentary treatment, members of the Dutch post-punk band The Ex were captivated by early ‘70s recordings of Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, on the Ethiopiques 14 compilation. In 2004, they tracked him down in his home country and persuaded him to visit Amsterdam, leading to collaborations, world tours and the album Moa Anbessa. Mekuria, now in his late seventies, expressed a desire to The Ex to create another album, sensing that it might be his last, and Y’Anbessaw Tezeta is the result, with an appropriately reflective mood, if somewhat less fiery than before—in his own words, capturing the “deeper, sensitive side” of him.
Though Merkuria was trained on western-world standards, he claims ignorance regarding jazz music; instead, his repertoire is steeped in traditional Ethiopian music, and the primarily instrumental Y’Anbessaw Tezeta draws from Ethiopian classics, from war-chants to folk tunes to wedding songs. The stunning “Tezeta,” a mostly solo saxophone number, apart from a little vocalizing at the end, showcases Mekuria’s unique and complicated tone, which manages to be simultaneously ardent and vulnerable with strong modulations. On “Ene Eskemot Derese,” Mekuria tag-teams navigating a fluid melody with a rapidly plucked guitar, atop a sturdy brushed-drum pattern, and the warrior song “Aha Gedawo” boils over with a sax/horn call-and-response exchange.
The album includes an hour-long bonus disc of mostly live recordings, featuring collaborations from the last eight years with The Ex and ICP (Instant Composers Pool), as well as haunting, historical tracks from the early ‘60s. In this incarnation, the ICP is a ten-person ensemble, including co-founders pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink, providing spirited and diverse contributions to the musical tapestry. Listeners expecting to hear raucous explosions may be disappointed by Y’Anbessaw Tezeta, but that’s not what Merkuria is going for on this outing, opting for a more moderate, yet profoundly expressive style.
Chicago-based percussionist Tim Daisy demonstrates a unique amalgam of approaches with his trio Vox Arcana, drawing from vibrant free jazz influences that are integrated into his compositions; the rigorous, tightly synchronized runs and interplay evoke modern classical methods, and there’s also a wild card element with a penchant for sound exploration and experimentation.
Vox Arcana has developed its own identity with some key trademark elements, including a stop-on-a-dime agility with rapid, abrupt starts and stops. Another hallmark is a sort of sonic pointillism, with streams of pin-prick note repetition, resembling musical Morse code, heard on the opening track “De Grote Olifant” (“the large elephant” in Dutch), with clarinetist James Falzone playing with a sharp precision and spotless clarity while tapping out his telegraph message, to be joined by Daisy on the marimba; cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm intersects Falzone’s line, with some fluid, classically-leaning riffing. They take turns carrying the head vamp and alternate their flights into space, with unpredictable jaunts, and Daisy serves up a wild drum solo with a dense flurry of taut, swift beats, metallic clicks and rattles, and a delivery that paradoxically sounds both focused and scatterbrained.
“White Numbers” also features staccato punctuation and minimalist dotted lines and remarkably seems to embody another contradiction, with the use of a peculiar kind of orchestrated disorder and controlled explosions. While all three musicians clearly enjoy their passages of freedom to explore, Lonberg-Holm exhibits a particular fondness for going beyond notes, from the violent string scraping sounds he generates on “Other Lights” to the glissandos that end the album on the closing track “The Siren.” Soft Focus strikes a nice balance between disparate elements and highlights stimulating contrasts of rigor tempered with play and classical composition giving way to free jazz, keeping the players—and the listeners—on their toes.